Pentecost 3 C: Free to Love

The readings for the Third Sunday after Pentecost are

Old Testament & Psalm, Option I

Old Testament      2 Kings 2:1–2, 6–14

Psalm                    Psalm 77:1–2, 11–20

or

Old Testament & Psalm, Option II

Old Testament      1 Kings 19:15–16, 19–21

Psalm                    Psalm 16

New Testament     Galatians 5:1, 13–25

Gospel                   Luke 9:51–62

All through the pandemic we have been torn between two ideologies of freedom: Freedom for self and freedom for community.  Paul insists our freedom is for community. It’s the freedom to love and to serve (Galatians 5.1, 13-25). This is a paradox: Freedom for self only is really slavery. Only by becoming slaves of others are we truly free.

I recently completed a week of study with the great Hebrew Bible scholar, John J. Collins, on the exploration of  biblical values. In the process we discussed what might be called a potential Protestant or an Evangelical mistake of understanding saving faith as belief, and using that as a rationale for freedom from social justice. The theory goes if you are saved by your faith in Jesus alone then actually doing good works doesn’t matter. Many prominent so-called evangelical preachers even claim that concern with social justice is a temptation we must resist as it is, by their definition, necessarily tied into the evils of socialism.

But Martin Luther, the original Protestant and Evangelical, didn’t think of faith as assent to a body of belief. Martin was inspired by our second reading, from Galatians, to write what I consider his most important book, The Freedom of the Christian. When the Apostle Paul, and Martin Luther wrote about the freedom of faith it wasn’t freedom from good works, but freedom for good works. Social justice is made possible by faith as trust in the love of God.

Paul and Luther understood faith as a reciprocal relationship between us and a gracious God. God loves us utterly, and faithfully. This is the heart of the Bible. Therefore, we need never fear losing that love, and so we are freed to direct our love outwards.

Both Paul and Luther boldly proclaim the irony—the foolishness of God’s wisdom. We are totally free, not to indulge our selfish urges and appetites, but to make ourselves the slaves of one another.

It is the fatal mistake of modern fundamentalism and so-called evangelicalism to fight against one form of slavery—the slavery of self indulgence, only to fall back into a slavery to self-directed belief. This happens when we imagine the Bible is a rule book, or blueprint for living—when we imagine that we are saved by getting the formulas right. We can be seduced by a belief that is a reassuring security blanket that we dare not let unravel through doubts and questions. And doubts and questions necessarily follow when we listen to others. If such doubt is let into this comforting cocoon, then assurance of salvation is lost. Therefore the principles of the Bible as we understand them become more important than people themselves. If God’s truth is at stake, then things like social justice, and listening to the cries of the oppressed, are just distractions.

Jesus punctured the whole bubble of faith as belief when he said in Matthew that you can fulfill all the hundreds of legal requirement of the Torah by loving God utterly and your neighbor as yourself. Paul distilled the requirement even further in Galatians—just one command: Love your neighbor as yourself. I think Paul knew the only thing that frees you to turn yourself inside out, and to love the neighbor who is often unlovable, is wholehearted loving trust in God. So, that is assumed in love of neighbor.

So, faith frees us not from social justice, but for it. We are free from anxiety over getting doctrine neat and tidy.. We are free from worrying about how we look or whether we are going to heaven. We are free from needing to defend God or the Bible, or to win arguments. We are free to follow Christ by trying to love somebody, even if we make mistakes and enemies.

Being free to love will help us restore balance to modern society—a balance we have lost because for decades now we have championed personal liberty over community responsibility. Surely what drove the events around January 6, 2021 was just that imbalance. A sore-loser President and his supporters were willing to desecrate an entire system of communal decision making for the sake of their own narrow, self-centered interests. Now it’s time for accountability. Now it’s time to restore the balance. Now it’s time to use our freedom not for self, but for love. Not to tear down, but to restore the great “one another” that God has given us.

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About John

John is a retired pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America who has served congregations for over 40 years, including in rural, suburban, campus ministry and urban settings. His love of Border Collie sheepdogs has been fortified by his many friendships with shepherds all around the world. Nothing he has ever or will ever accomplish is as significant as the patience God, his wife and his friends have shown in putting up with his deficiencies.
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